The Burton-Churchill Eruption: Coming Soon in Your Neighborhood

The Burton-Churchill Eruption: Coming Soon in Your Neighborhood

Excerpt­ed from “Back in the News: Richard Burton’s Fraught Rela­tion­ship with Win­ston Churchill,” for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, June 2020. For the com­plete text, please click here. 

The Burton – Churchill Kerfuffle

The air­waves and Twit­ter­verse are full of Churchill bile fol­low­ing recent sad events that have noth­ing to do with him. Sur­fac­ing again are attacks half a cen­tu­ry old by the famed actor Richard Bur­ton. Film crit­ic John Beau­fort first report­ed these in the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor in 1972:

Decem­ber 9th, 1972— Richard Bur­ton has just giv­en two of the odd­est and most con­tra­dic­to­ry per­for­mances of his career. Both involved his por­tray­al of Win­ston Churchill in film The Gath­er­ing Storm. The pro­logue con­sist­ed of two arti­cles by the actor in TV Guide and The New York  Times. Mr. Bur­ton put on a good show as Win­ston Churchill, a bad show as Richard Bur­ton.

Bur­ton had pre­vi­ous­ly expressed only admi­ra­tion for Churchill. Their encoun­ters at the Old Vic, when Bur­ton played Ham­let, were leg­endary. Bur­ton called Churchill “this reli­gion, this flag, this insignia.” Lady Williams of Elv­el, a for­mer Churchill sec­re­tary, remem­bered him well: “Richard came down to the front of the stage to speak the great Shake­speare­an words with Churchill. The audi­ence was ecsta­t­ic. I had the impres­sion that Richard wor­shipped Sir Win­ston.”

“To play Churchill is to hate him…”

Burton
Poster for the 1974 docu­d­ra­ma “The Gath­er­ing Storm,” with Bur­ton star­ring as WSC. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

…was now sud­den­ly Burton’s refrain. “Churchill and all his kind…have stalked down the cor­ri­dors of end­less pow­er all through his­to­ry,”  he wrote. He was the “son of a Welsh min­er.” Meet­ing Churchill was “like a blow under the heart…. My class and his hate each oth­er to the seething point.”

The actor’s words are in vogue again. They fit well. Jour­nal­ism seems large­ly to have part­ed com­pa­ny with old stand-by rules like “have mul­ti­ple sources” or “ver­i­fy your quo­ta­tions.” Burton’s out­burst fits today’s nar­ra­tive. Churchill was a war-mon­ger­ing racist impe­ri­al­ist who despised the poor, brown and black. Here is Bur­ton, bend­ing quotes a half cen­tu­ry ago:

Churchill quote, Bur­ton ver­sion: “They [Ger­mans] must bleed and burn, they must be crushed into a mass of smoul­der­ing ruins.” Churchill’s actu­al words: “It is our inter­est to engage the enemy’s air pow­er at as many points as pos­si­ble to make him bleed and burn and waste on the widest fronts” (23 April 1942).

Bur­ton: “That mor­bid crea­ture, Hitler, of fero­cious genius, that repos­i­to­ry of human crime.”  (Bur­ton adds: “He might have been talk­ing about him­self.”) Churchill’s actu­al words: “…a mani­ac of fero­cious genius, the repos­i­to­ry and expres­sion of the most vir­u­lent hatreds that have ever cor­rod­ed the human breast” (The Gath­er­ing Storm, 9).

Doubling down

Bur­ton cor­rect­ly quot­ed “We are revolved to destroy Hitler and every ves­tige of the Nazi regime” (broad­cast, 22 June 1941). Then he inter­pret­ed it: “What he was real­ly say­ing was that ‘every ves­tige of the Nazi regime’ includ­ed the entire Ger­man race.” Churchill wrote of his vis­it to Berlin in 1945: “My hate had died with their sur­ren­der” (Tri­umph and Tragedy, 545).

We should be glad these were the only Churchill “quotes” in Burton’s cat­a­logue of dis­dain. The rest con­sist­ed of boil­er­plate con­dem­na­tion. Every­thing from despis­ing Clement Attlee to WSC’s “baby-like, hair­less, effem­i­nate right hand, slow­ly slam­ming the table, that bizarre cadence of his curi­ous voice: ‘We were right to fight, we were right to fight,’ I went home and had a few night­mares.” Read­ers pos­sessed of rea­son might have had a few night­mares them­selves.

Reactions

In those days we felt more con­fi­dence toward our heroes, and Bur­ton reaped the whirl­wind. The BBC Dra­ma Depart­ment banned him for life. (Today they would prob­a­bly be offer­ing him a TV spe­cial.) In Par­lia­ment, Nor­man Teb­bit spoke of “an actor past his peak indulging in a fit of pique, jeal­ousy and igno­rant com­ment.” More point­ed­ly, Neville Trot­ter said: “If there were more Churchills and few­er Bur­tons we would be in a very much bet­ter coun­try.”

The actor received scores of protest­ing let­ters. They went unan­swered, even from friends like Robert Hardy. Instead, Bur­ton dou­bled down. “Churchill has fas­ci­nat­ed me since child­hood,” he retorted—“a bogey­man who hat­ed us, the min­ing class, motive­less­ly. He ordered a few of us to be shot, you know, and the orders were car­ried out.” His­to­ri­an John Rams­den observed: “The myth of Tony­pandy was still around to haunt Churchill’s mem­o­ry.”

Why did Burton do it?

Richard Bur­ton played to his audi­ence. In 1962 he earned $100,000 for record­ing Churchill’s words in Jack Le Vien’s tele­vi­sion series The Valiant Years. Dr. Rams­den believed he was nom­i­nat­ed for that role by Churchill him­self: “‘Get that boy from the Old Vic.’ [It was] arguably one of the best things he ever did.” Like Lady Williams, Le Vien saw in Bur­ton only an admir­er. A bust of Churchill was his trea­sured pos­ses­sion. He told both Clemen­tine Churchill and Sir Winston’s grand­son how much he admired “the old man.”

To dif­fer­ent audi­ences Bur­ton revealed oth­er opin­ions. On tele­vi­sion chat shows, Dr. Rams­den wrote, he would often empha­size: “‘I’m the son of a Welsh min­er.’ Here too he was play­ing a part, for his lifestyle was way beyond the com­pre­hen­sion of Welsh min­ers.”

Dr. Ramsden’s final judg­ment is appo­site: “As his career and life dete­ri­o­rat­ed around him and the fog of alco­hol descend­ed, Bur­ton was try­ing des­per­ate­ly to play the man he had been long ago, and he at least knew what young Welsh­men had been expect­ed to believe about Win­ston Churchill. He was not asked to play either part again.”

Further reading

“Churchill Bio-Pics: The Trou­ble with the Movies”

John Rams­den quo­ta­tions are from his thought­ful book Man of the Cen­tu­ry: Win­ston Churchill and his Leg­end Since 1945 (Lon­don: Harper­Collins, 2002).

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